Sharpen your knife skills with Ignacio Mattos, David Tanis and others
Thanksgiving is a mere two months away. With that in mind, it's never too early to brush up on the cooking techniques that will make your holiday entertaining more seamless--and ultimately, a lot more fun.
In the first installment of our "Countdown to the Holidays" series, we're revisiting the most basic of skills: chopping. We turned to a few experts behind the line to cut through the clutter and get you up to speed.
One Onion, Two Ways, Minimal Tears
Yes, we've got high-carbon Japanese sashimi knives on our wish list, too. While we fantasize about flashy blades, it's worth recalling that much of cooking comes down to unsexy, repetitive drudge work.
"Everyone thinks cooking in a restaurant is really glamorous, but it's really all about chopping onions," says David Tanis, former chef of Chez Panisse and current City Kitchen columnist for the New York Times. "You have to get good at it."
Tanis stopped by Manhattan's Estela restaurant to chat with chef Ignacio Mattos about the central, unavoidable task of cutting onions. "No onions, no food," Ignacio says Mattos-of-factly.
The two compared two styles of breaking down this kitchen staple: The Traditional, and the slightly radical variations we'll call Mattos-Tanis New Style (though the chefs learned the tweak from different people years ago).
It's easier to demonstrate than explain. Above, Mattos shows off each approach. In the Traditional, you cut the onion in half and perform a series of vertical and horizontal cuts with the root intact, holding the pieces together until you're ready to release the dice.
According to the (to us, astounding) Mattos-Tanis New Style, you cut off the root, slice along the grain and then, crucially, push the slices down and cut at a 45 degree angle, resulting in a fine dice.
Get a Grip
"Beginners grip a knife like it's a baseball bat," says chef Bill Kim of Chicago's BellyQ. "I call this the 'I don't want to cut myself' grip. The correct way is more like the proper grip on a golf club (fig. 1, below). Your index finger should come over the handle and be tucked back at about thirty degrees. The thumb rests on the metal butt end of the knife. I tell people: If you don't have a callous on that index finger, you're not a real chef."
Sizing Up a Blade
The better you get with a knife, the more you are essentially using the center of the blade. "The tip is positioning, but the middle of the knife does the real work," chef Kim says.
With that in mind, maximize your blade length while finding a knife that's comfortable and easy to control. Too big, and the knife is unwieldy and inaccurate. Too small, and you don't have the proper reach to deal with long vegetables, leading to more cuts and wasted time.
The size you choose depends on your height, hand size and comfort level in the kitchen. Kim suggests 10 to 11 inches (fig. 2) is ideal for most people. "The urge is to go too big," he says. "But you have to be a 10 foot giant to really control a 16-inch knife."
The Left Hand (a.k.a., The Claw)
"The left hand is your sous chef," says Brendan McHale, executive chef of the Tasting Table Test Kitchen & Dining Room. "It helps process the flow of everything and manages the real estate of the cutting board, while the right hand does the skilled work." In other words, it keeps its fingers down and stays out of the way. The classic claw formation (fig. 3) allows you to tuck your fingers out of harm's way and hold what you're cutting in place while you rest the blade against your knuckles for guidance.